Man-spreading: you’ve probably heard that phrase. It’s currently being bandied about, especially at public transportation sites where passengers view bold signs discouraging inconsiderate men from helping themselves to selfish amounts of seating, often with space-gulps equivalent to two seats or more.
Is this wide-legged stance a male physical need, or a learned behavior? Is it, perhaps, a self-serving invention, like the one I naively accepted growing up in the 1950s? I recall the narrative went this way: flirting or leading-a-boy-on is heartless (so said the mansplaining boys at my junior high school) because it results in agonizing blue-balls. (In response to this explanation, a few women have whispered to me, not for quotation, that it’s probably similar to how some women feel after sex with men.)
How refreshing it is for the MTA to address public civility, and to direct this courtesy-gap particularly toward men. Subway advertisements warning about man-spreading suggest that macho legs-apart may just be a power-grab, a traditional male prerogative which insinuates selfhood and dominion over terrain, perhaps like a dog’s territorial claim-by-urination.
It certainly is in stark contrast to the legs-crossed-at-the-knee way my generation of females were taught to sit and compose ourselves. Unladylike, it would have been called, if a female took a wide-legged seated stance in public. Our culture taught us, as young girls, that our positions had to follow societal rules of proper femininity. Our bodies must assume a more constricted and contracted pose, taking up as little space as possible. In my lectures at museums and universities, I like to quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from her 2014 TED talk when she said, “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller.”
When girls and women ignore this societal petition to be ‘proper,’ it doesn’t go unnoticed. In a 2010 article for the Washington Post (which has since been removed), fashion writer Robin Givhan demeans the Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan by decrying her wardrobe, and honing in on her legs which were (horrors!) uncrossed at the knee:
She walked with authority and stood up straight during her visits to the Hill, but once seated and settled during audiences with senators, she didn’t bother maintaining an image of poised perfection. She sat hunched over. She sat with her legs ajar…
Her posture stands out because for so many women, when they sit, they cross. People tend to mimic each other’s body language during a conversation, especially if they’re trying to connect with one another. But even when Kagan sits across from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has her legs crossed at the knees, Kagan keeps both feet planted firmly on the ground. Her body language will not be bullied into conformity…
She does not cross her legs at the ankles either, the way so many older women do. Instead, Kagan sits, in her sensible skirts, with her legs slightly apart, hands draped in her lap…
She is intent on being comfortable.
In contrast to men’s posture, we often see women with legs crossed at the knee almost all of the time: in meetings, at parties, at staged panel discussions, such as a Hamptons Institute panel I attended recently at Guild Hall in East Hampton:
In interviews and videos, under the auspices of my non-profit, Have Art: Will Travel! Inc, women have revealed to me long-harbored hurts and guilt feelings related to this issue. One woman, we’ll call her Susan, spoke off-the-record of being in her third-grade class and having a professional photographer come to school to take the class picture. As per usual in the 1950s, it took some weeks for the picture to be developed and shown to the eight-year-old students, who were agog with anticipation. When the photograph was finally unveiled, the class turned to Susan and angrily told her she ruined the picture for all of us. Why? Because her legs were ajar.
Art can open minds. It can put people in touch with thoughts long repressed, and start conversations stemming from its visual/visceral stimuli. This happened when Women’s eNews Executive Director Lori Sokol cathartically revealed a story she had stored in the back of her mind, only telling a few people in her entire lifetime.
And then there’s my own story, vivid to me to this day, of how I first learned to keep my legs together in public. I was about nine-years-old, sitting in a neighborhood park with a bunch of boys and girls talking, laughing, and having fun. All of a sudden, in front of everyone in my group, one of the boys jumped up from a bench and swiftly reached out, touching my genitals. I was shocked. I turned red, asking Joey, why did you do that? His answer: you were sitting wrong, with your legs open some, and that gave me the right to do it. I felt terribly ashamed and embarrassed, not understanding anything of the 1950s societal gender-bias at work.
Many men may not be aware that they claim more space and enlarge the outreach of their bodies, while women tend to make themselves smaller, and more compact, as they fold and compress their limbs. Unlike females who learn to constrict themselves, males learn this free-and-open stance from early boyhood, until it becomes part of their natural repertoire of manly positions and movements. I relate it to a boy getting onto a bicycle. He swings his leg in a wide arc over the bicycle seat, placing his foot onto the far pedal, while a girl learns to get on a bike by taking up very little space, modestly lifting her leg only slightly in front of the bicycle’s seat, as she primly places it on the far pedal.
I considered and studied the difference, as a kid, between the free-style expansive movements and mobility of boys, and the body-constricting postures of girls. But I wasn’t able to connect the societal dots for myself, or to verbalize what I would now list as one of the many privileges of masculinity: freedom to take up space in ways that females learned were verboten to them.
Now, as an artist, I can look back on my childhood gender-befuddlement, and separate the dearth of agency afforded me by my culture from my own inadequacies. It wasn’t penis-envy that I felt, it was privilege, and power-envy. Now, as my art includes details of superheroes and cultural icons, such as Wonder Woman, I can visually address my childhood puzzlements.
I sometimes find myself, even today, aware of whether my legs are together or apart when sitting in public, and not only when men are present. I look around to see how others are positioning themselves, at times adjusting my posture and crossing my legs, even at the expense of my physical comfort. With or without awareness, my struggle continues – either to resist gender stereotypes, or conform to them.
A tapestry I created, Legs Together and Apart, addresses this issue. It is part of my current series, Sexism and Masculinities/Femininities: Exploring, Exploding, Expanding Gender Stereotypes, and expands upon the conversation I am having with myself, inviting my viewers and lecture audience to participate and respond to questions my art raises. In my next round of interviews, I’d like to hear from men and get their take on this issue.
I’d like my work and its related discussions to open a way for me to fully relinquish, after shared investigations, the gender rules prevalent in my youth, those that defined femininity and masculinity as constrictive binaries.
I don’t need or want to take up two seats on the train. I just need more freedom and choice within any space that I occupy.
Linda Stein is a feminist artist, activist, educator, performer, and writer. She is the Founding President of the non-profit Have Art: Will Travel! Inc (HAWT) for Gender Justice, addressing bullying and diversity. HAWT currently oversees The Fluidity of Gender: Sculpture by Linda Stein (FoG) and Holocaust Heroes: Fierce Females – Tapestries and Sculpture by Linda Stein (H2F2), two traveling exhibitions with educational workshops. Two more exhibitions will travel soon: Displacement from Home: What to Leave, What to Take (DC4) and Sexism and Masculinities/Feminities: Exploring, Exploding, Expanding Gender Stereotypes (SMF). In 2018, Stein was honored as one of Women’s eNews’ 21 Leaders for the 21st Century. In 2017, Stein received the NYC Art Teachers Association/UFT Artist of the Year award, and in 2016, she received the Artist of the Year Award from the National Association of Women Artists.